Our usual national meeting, or a series of regionals — what should it be this year? It's a question many planners face as they synthesize today's travel realities. In fact, a survey of business travelers conducted by Yesawich, Pepperdine & Brown at the end of January found that 57 percent of respondents would rather drive than fly to a meeting whenever they could.

Although this year's circumstances are unprecedented, the question itself isn't new. Many planners have occasionally wondered which approach would best serve the needs of their attendees — or if it was just time for a change from the same old, same old.

As companies experiment with a switch from national to regional meetings, they face a number of challenges and benefits. Here's a look at three companies that went regional and what they learned along the way.

Targeting New Attendees

“We had a gut feeling that there was a layer or two of individuals who could benefit from the information at a national meeting, but we weren't sure the attendees were taking that information back to those people,” says Grant R. Erikson, director, corporate electronic communications, for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. in Akron, Ohio.

Typically, attendees at the national meeting were the owners of independent tire dealerships. “Some of our large dealers have huge commitments to education and bring their managers to the national meeting,” says Erikson. But, for the most part, managers didn't attend and had to get their information secondhand from the owners.

So Goodyear recently decided to break the national meeting into a series of nine regionals, based on the company's distribution regions. Then, “We built some specific educational seminars into the meetings to attract a different level of attendee,” says Erikson. “We wanted more managers to come with the owners.”

But reshaping the meeting posed a challenge, he says. “The huge advantage of the national meeting is that the message is delivered in one city in a single voice. The regionals were held in nine cities over a five-day period to try to ensure that each group received the same message.”

All key presentations were bundled into a video, and there was a complicated structure of when and how those messages would be delivered. The messages were in a news show format and were spaced throughout the day, not delivered all at once.

“One of the big draws at a national meeting is the mega-event with the mega-personalities,” says Erikson. “We've had the Beach Boys, Tony Bennett, Bill Cosby. But you can't get big names at nine different locations. To soften that, he says, the video included a segment in which Walter Cronkite interviewed Goodyear's president and chairman.

In addition, key people from Akron management attended three meetings each. “Our executives were jumping all over the country. Their travel schedule was horrific. Management considered — but then rejected — the idea of doing the entire program electronically.

“We didn't like the non-touch feeling,” Erikson explains. It also wouldn't have been logical: The theme of the meetings was “Taking It to the Streets,” which wouldn't have made much sense if all the executives stayed at headquarters.”

Networking was significantly different at the regional meetings. On the upside, there is an “intimacy quotient” at regionals, says Erikson. He's heard attendees at national meetings lament that “I never saw Joe — I couldn't find him in that crowd.”

On the downside, attendees could network only with the dealers in their region, not with their dealer friends in other regions. Moreover, “because of the way we dispersed the management team, there wasn't an opportunity for attendees to get face time with everyone they wanted to see.” The company president, for example, couldn't be at every regional meeting.

“Another thing you lose at a regional,” Erikson continues, “is the camaraderie and spirit and mass, everyone gathering at this great big event, and now you have one-ninth of it. It's a different energy level.”

All of which makes it totally clear why attendees responded as they did on the post-meeting survey. When asked if they would support attendance at a regional meeting, they said “now and then,” says Erikson. But they stated an overwhelming preference for a national meeting.

Redirecting the Workload

For Auntie Anne's, a worldwide franchisor of hand-rolled soft pretzel stores, workload was the concern that led to shifting from an annual national meeting to a series of regionals. “Auntie Anne [company founder Anne Beiler] wanted to give people a break,” says Becky Nguyen, communications administrator for the Gap, Pa., company. Of the 167 people in the home office, 160 play some part in planning the annual national convention, and that's on top of their regular jobs. Auntie Anne's idea was to hold five regional meetings, delegate some of the planning responsibility to the regions, and have one home office person — Nguyen — coordinate everything.

That's really not as difficult as it sounds, Nguyen maintains. “The meetings are simpler and on a smaller scale, and this is my main role,” not something she's doing in addition to other responsibilities. Also, she points out that she began planning in May of last year for a series of meetings that runs from February through May of this year. So she finds plenty of time to do what needs to be done.

“The trade show and the production numbers [at the convention] are big,” says Nguyen. “Last year we created a stage, and that was a challenge.” But this year there won't be any splashy production numbers, so no production company is being hired.

There are a number of differences between the annual convention and the regional meetings, known as “summits.” One key difference is that there was a trade show at the national convention, but there won't be any at the summits. That reduces total attendance because there will be no suppliers and vendors. It also eliminates the need for a hospitality suite for vendors and their guests.

Registration is also scaled down. At the convention, there was computerized registration and badges were printed out. At the regional meetings, where attendance is smaller and crowd control is not an issue, people will simply write out their own badges.

But there are also significant benefits to these summit meetings, especially for the members of Auntie Anne's council, franchise representatives who serve as an advisory board and meet with management twice a year. Because the summit meetings will provide a half day of training for the council members, these will be, in effect, enhanced council meetings. “This means increased work for the training department,” says Nguyen, “because two people from the department will go to each meeting.”

A plus for all attendees is that the agenda is more flexible and they have a greater say in the programming. In one time slot, “We gave the regions a choice of entertainment or a social hour for networking. Three regions chose a social hour, and two chose entertainment, so we needed to find entertainment that would travel.”

As a result, Nguyen adds, “Each region has a slightly different schedule for its meeting, so we're doing five different invitations. More attention to detail is needed to be sure we have the right information on each one.”

It's not just the training department that has to travel. “Our people love being able to spend time with Auntie Anne, so she'll be zipping throughout the country,” says Nguyen. “She'll have to do five presentations and five award presentations.”

The regional meetings are to some extent an experiment. Management has already decided to hold a national convention in 2003. But “our decision for regional summits in 2004 will be based on feedback from the management team and franchisees,” says Nguyen.

In the meantime, “We have 167 employees in the home office and regional offices, and now 160 of them have a lighter workload.”

Addressing the Fear Factor

“People were truly afraid to fly” after September 11, says Fé Domenech, senior executive events consultant and program producer for ME Productions, a destination management and event production company based in Pembroke Park, Fla. Domenech heard that concern voiced by clients ranging from dotcoms to financial services companies to what she calls “major old corporate names.”

Executives at one dotcom felt that they needed to address people's fears, and decided to reshape the national sales meeting. Rather than holding it in the usual high-profile resort location, they broke it into three meetings in secondary, non-resort locations.

Management also needed to cut costs. “The productions, presentations, AV, offsite activities — they weren't doing them,” says Domenech.

Because of these changes, she says, “top performers don't feel as if they are being as richly rewarded. They aren't traveling to an exotic locale or a new and unfamiliar resort area. The event is now in their own backyard, so to speak, so it's less glamorous and exciting.” The attendee who's afraid to fly or spend hours in airports will be pleased, but the attendee who wants the glitz and glamour will be disappointed.

Also, networking and teambuilding events “become much more limited,” says Domenech. “You have to be a visionary, be more creative, so that people feel as if they are getting something special, as if they've gone somewhere,” she says. “That could mean taking people up to a rooftop for an event where they can scream and shout — or perhaps going to a local park for a teambuilding event. Every state has a recreation area,” she says. It helps to have a local contact who can help select a venue for your group.

What Domenech doesn't worry about is that attendees at separate meetings might not all get the same information. “Even if people are all in the same room, not everyone hears the message the same way.”

The approach for regional meetings, she says, is to “script” the message in order to have exactly the same presentation at each location. As insurance, “You could have one vice president travel with the speaker so that your message and figurehead are the same.”

She also doesn't think that planners necessarily have less clout when negotiating hotel contracts for a smaller meeting. The dotcom client is a big enough name that it carries the same weight wherever it goes, she asserts. But for any company that either is a major name or has a strong history, “If I have a smaller meeting, my negotiating power is the same because if I have a bigger meeting in the future, the property wants me to take the meeting there.”

Even though Domenech sees many companies turning away from national meetings right now, she has no doubt that they'll switch back. “When you do a local meeting, you show that you listened, and you've met people's fears. But this is temporary; we'll move on. You've never seen a brighter face than that of a person who's been to a great general session or a gala. You have to do the national meeting for the overall pump of the company.”

Comparing Costs

What happens to the budget when a company breaks its national meeting into a series of regionals? It depends on the company's objectives and approach.

  • “A large meeting with entertainment is very costly,” says Fé Domenech, senior executive events consultant and program producer for destination management and event production company ME Productions, Pembroke Park, Fla. When one of her dotcom clients decided to hold three regional meetings rather than a national one, it dropped production numbers and presentations that required elaborate AV. Also, the company held the three meetings at secondary properties in second-tier cities. “Even if you're flying a few people around [to the separate meetings], you're still saving a lot of money,” she says.

  • “Some people try to skinny down on regional meetings, but we tried to keep the same quality,” says Grant R. Erikson, director, corporate electronic communications, for the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co., Akron, Ohio. When Goodyear held nine regional meetings instead of a national, “We went for name hotels to keep the level of the meeting up.”

    Corporate headquarters also gave each region an allocation for local entertainment. Meanwhile, several executives from headquarters traveled to three meetings each. The upshot was that the regional meetings cost $50,000 more than the previous year's national meeting. “But we did not go into the event trying to save money,” says Erickson. “It was a different way to communicate a message of the same quality.”

  • Pretzel-store franchisor Auntie Anne's is holding five scaled-down regional meetings this year in place of its usual national meeting. Among the changes: There'll be no trade show, thus no hospitality suite for exhibitors; no splashy production numbers, and a manual, rather than computerized, registration process.

On the other hand, the company founder, Anne Beiler, people from the training department, and a number of other executives will have to travel to each meeting. But for the national convention, “we brought in 50 regional employees for several days, and we paid for them,” says Becky Nguyen, communications administrator for the Gap, Pa., company. “So I think it might be a wash.”